Learning in Political Science

The political science major at Berkeley seeks to achieve three main objectives:

  1. Familiarize students with the issues surrounding the exercise of political power.
  2. Provide exposure to the main subfields of political science along with opportunities for specialization and experimentation in a single area.
  3. Develop analytical capacities, so that students are able to distill large amounts of information concerning complex world events into coherent, persuasive arguments.

1. The exercise of political power

Political science is the study of power in the operation of human society. The political science major is concerned with exploring the exercise of power in its myriad forms and consequences. Students in the major are encouraged to explore such central issues as:

  • the ethical problems attendant to the exercise of power;
  • the history of important political ideas, such as "liberty," "justice," "community," and "morality";
  • the impact of historical, economic, and social forces on the operation of politics;
  • the functioning and distinctive features of the US political system;
  • the diversity of political systems found among nations and the significance of these differences;
  • the interaction among international actors and the causes of war and peace.

A student who has completed the major should have a far-ranging understanding of the political and collective organizations that affect our lives. He or she should emerge as a more informed citizen, able to participate in civic communities at all levels. While most political science graduates will not go on to careers in politics, all will receive the skills and knowledge to understand the political world around them, hopefully helping foster more active and engaged citizens.

2. Exposure to the discipline plus subfield specialization

Political science is a heterogeneous discipline both methodologically and substantively. Methodologically, some political scientists emphasize historical and case-based approaches that are close to the disciplines of history and sociology, whereas other practitioners embrace the kinds of formal modeling and mathematical approaches found in economics. Substantively, most political science departments are divided into four main subfields: political theory, American politics, comparative politics, and international relations. Berkeley is even more pluralistic. We consider formal theory/methodology to be an equivalent (fifth) foundational subfield. In addition, and in contrast to almost all other political science departments in the country, Berkeley recognizes a number of subfields that may cross-cut traditional political science boundaries. Examples of such subfields include: political behavior, public law and jurisprudence, and public policy and organization.

The undergraduate program seeks to balance a common intellectual foundation with opportunities to take advantage of the department's diversity of approaches and interests. All undergraduates must complete at least one course in each of the five main subfields. In addition, students are required to specialize by taking three or more courses in a single subfield. This subfield may be one of the five core subfields (political theory, American politics, comparative politics, international relations, formal theory/methodology) or one of the non-traditional subfields (such as political behavior, public law and jurisprudence, and public policy and organization).

3. From complex world events to coherent, persuasive arguments

Political scientists seek to make sense of complex world events, such as elections, public policies, wars, and revolutions. Central to this undertaking is the ability to process large amounts of information and to distill it into clear analytical claims. Students in the major learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, to distinguish incidental facts from crucial data, and to assess the quality of evidence and the persuasiveness of causal inferences drawn from that evidence. They learn to not only defend their own argument, but also to present and debunk alternatives. These skills are essential to graduates, even those who choose not to pursue careers in political science. The ability to move from complex world events to coherent, persuasive arguments, to show that your position is right and the alternative is wrong, is essential to success across a range of settings, from law (arguing a legal case), to public policy (developing a compelling proposal and winning support for it), to business (convincing supervisors and/or investors to support a new venture or idea).

Many leading political science departments have opted strongly for either a qualitative, historical approach to argumentation or a quantitative approach. At Berkeley, we believe that both approaches have merit, that they are best seen as complements rather than alternatives, to be used in combination or for tackling particular kinds of questions. Students in the major are introduced to both quantitative and qualitative methods, with the expectation that they will use each as appropriate, depending on the question at hand and the available data. The emphasis is on developing and presenting the most compelling argument possible, not adhering to a particular methodology.

Means to Achieve these Goals

In 2007, the Berkeley undergraduate program was fundamentally overhauled. Beyond updating the program, the reform was designed to more closely align course offerings with the goals enunciated above. In addition, the political science department sought to fashion a program that could meet the needs of our diverse student population, from those with a broad but as yet unfocused interest in politics, to those aiming to attend law school or business school, to those intending to pursue an advanced graduate degree in political science. The new political science curriculum has four main components:

1. Methods: Political Science 3

The first component is Political Science 3, the only course required of all students in the major. PS 3 provides an introduction to the methods political scientists use to answer questions about politics. The course begins with a discussion of the primary difficulties involved in making descriptive and causal inferences about politics, but moves quickly to discuss the basic concepts and techniques of quantitative as well as qualitative research methods. Students then apply these skills in a series of hands-on exercises.

2. Broad exposure to the discipline: Political Science 1, 2, 4, and 5

PS 3 is one of five introductory courses in political science, corresponding to the five major subfields in the discipline. The other introductory classes are: PS 1 (American politics), PS 2 (comparative politics), PS 4 (political theory), and PS 5 (international relations). These courses are very large and provide introductory topical knowledge to their respective subfields. In addition, these courses often discuss methodological issues specific to the subfield, thereby enriching the insights provided by PS 3.

Our department believes that every student in the major should be exposed to each of the five subfields corresponding to the PS 1 – PS 5 series. Toward this end, students must take PS 3 as well as two of the four other courses in the PS 1 – PS 5 series. In addition, under the department's newly adopted distribution requirement, students must take classes in the two remaining subfields (either the introductory PS 1 – PS 5 course or an upper-division course). Thus, a typical student in the major will take PS 3, two of the four introductory PS 1- PS 5 classes, and two classes in the remaining subfields whether from the PS 1- PS 5 series or at the upper-division level.

3. Specialization and applied analytical skills: upper-division courses (Political Science 101 -199)

Students who have completed the main introductory classes typically then begin taking upper-division courses. These courses, numbered from PS 101 to PS 199 in the catalogue, tend to be smaller in size and offer more specialized knowledge. The workload is generally heavier, and the classes often require students to formulate and defend original arguments through a variety of methods, including formal models, experiments, and research papers.

The department's requirements for upper-division courses are designed to combine opportunities for wide-ranging inquiry with the acquisition of some specialized knowledge. Students in the major must take at least eight upper-division classes, which allows for a great deal of intellectual exploration. At the same time, to insure a degree of specialized knowledge, students must take at least three courses (including an introductory class from the PS 1 – PS 5 series) in a single subfield. As noted above, this specialization requirement may be fulfilled in one of the five core subfields (political theory, American politics, comparative politics, international relations, formal theory/methodology) or in one of the non-traditional subfields (such as political behavior, public law and jurisprudence, and public policy and organization).

4. Opportunities for advanced research (junior seminars, honors theses)

The final component of the undergraduate curriculum is optional, rather than compulsory. For highly motivated students, the department offers opportunities for advanced research under the close supervision of a faculty member in the junior and/or senior years. As part of the curriculum reform, the department created a series of small, faculty-led seminars designed to develop research and writing skills among undergraduate political science majors in their junior year. Many of these students will go on to write senior honors theses (see below), and the junior seminars can provide a valuable head start. In addition, by limiting enrollment to 20 students, the junior seminars allow motivated students excellent opportunities to interact directly with members of the faculty. The political science department offers roughly seven or eight faculty-led junior seminars annually, providing enough slots for around 30 percent of the juniors in any given year (160 out of 550).

The department also encourages a limited number of students to write honors theses in their senior year. Students must apply to the honors program, and to be eligible, they must have completed 90 units, find a faculty to sponsor their research, and have a GPA of 3.3 overall and 3.5 in the major at the time of application. Only 40 students are accepted into the honors program. In their senior year, these students take a year-long seminar (PS H190A and H190B), while also working independently with a faculty sponsor. The seminar provides structure, feedback, and guidance for students in a classroom setting. The faculty sponsor advises and guides the research on the student's specific thesis topic.


The political science department has taken a number of steps recently to improve the undergraduate education experience. Our curriculum reform has updated and improved the structure of the major, insuring that students will be exposed to the five main subfields in the discipline. This core distribution requirement means that all students in the major receive a common substantive and analytical foundation. At the same time, students are able to pursue diverse interests at the upper-division level, most notably through the newly created specialization requirement. Finally, the most ambitious and high-achieving students now have the opportunity to undertake advanced research under the close guidance of a faculty member through the junior seminars and senior honors program. The end result is an educational experience that provides a common "Berkeley" imprint, while accommodating the diversity of our student population — both the diversity of substantive interests and the diversity in the nature of students' intellectual engagement with the discipline of political science.